Product Safety and Liability Law in Japan: From Minamata to Mad Cows

Product Safety and Liability Law in Japan: From Minamata to Mad Cows

Product Safety and Liability Law in Japan: From Minamata to Mad Cows

Product Safety and Liability Law in Japan: From Minamata to Mad Cows

Excerpt

Re-visiting Japan in the late 1980s was an exciting experience for an impressionable young New Zealander. Fuelled by the bubble economy the country was awash with the latest consumer goods, especially electronic and other manufactured products. Their variety and reliability, as well as the attentiveness of sales staff, was a refreshing contrast to the situation in a small country like New Zealand, which began to dismantle extraordinarily high import barriers only from the mid-1980s. Along with the intriguing literature still celebrating 'Japan as No. 1' at the time (Vogel 1986), these aspects helped tip the scales in favour of pursuing postgraduate studies at Kyoto University Law Faculty from 1990.

My Master of Laws thesis and initial coursework towards a doctorate there focused on comparative contract law and practice. However, the versatility of my supervisor-building on a fine tradition of minpogaku requiring 'civil law scholarship' in Japan to cover private obligations more generally-coincided with the growing debate over 1993 and early 1994 about enacting a strict-liability Product Liability (PL) regime for compensating harm arising from unsafe goods. Professor Zentaro Kitagawa's seminars on this topic opened up a whole new world of law, especially for someone from New Zealand which in 1972 had abolished rights to sue for any personal injury by accident, in favour of a state-run no-fault compensation scheme. Work with various law firms in Osaka sometimes provided a further practical perspective on how to maintain standards and resolve disputes involving product quality and safety.

After three years in legal practice in New Zealand, and lecturing back at Victoria University of Wellington, I returned to a significantly different Japan in early 1997, to teach at Kyushu University Law Faculty while completing my doctorate. The bubble had definitely burst, leading to economic stagnation and even dramatic failures of financial institutions. Japan had become 'the system that soured' (Katz 1998), Americans decried 'the myths of Japanese quality' (Eberts and Eberts 1995), and its legal system was viewed as needing dramatic reform rather than being a source of inspiration for Western nations. This change of mood seemed to contribute to a disjuncture between negative commentary on Japan's PL Law of 1994, especially early on from the United States (e.g. Bernstein and Fanning 1996), and reports from a range of sources

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